Patrick Moore takes a look at the ups and downs of planning for an extreme out-of-this-world holiday.
The idea of space tourism is very new. Only a few decades ago it was dismissed as pure science fiction, suited to writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells but quite unworthy of serious scientific consideration. The situation today is very different. Men have been to the Moon; unmanned vehicles have bypassed all the planets in the Solar System apart from Pluto; and two fee-paying passengers, Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttlewood, have already visited the International Space Station.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first book devoted entirely to space tourism, and it is timely because elaborate arrangements are well in hand. Michel van Pelt is well qualified to write it because he is an aerospace engineer who works in a technical centre for the development of projects such as the construction of reusable space-planes. He is in no doubt about the future: "It seems to be almost certain that space tourism will grow into a viable and a major economical factor. Many people are interested in going into space." So far, only a multi-millionaire can afford to buy a ticket, but in the foreseeable future it is at least possible that the price will drop to a reasonable level.
The book is cleverly arranged. There are technical sections that are easy to read as well as informative, providing a good introduction to the problem of flight beyond the atmosphere. The reader is then taken through the procedure of astronaut selection, followed by an excellent description of what the would-be traveller may expect; for obvious reasons, training must be rigorous - one mistake could be disastrous. A long section covers preparations for the trip, and this is one of the best parts of the book.
The author has been to the astronaut and cosmonaut centres and has clearly taken great care to make himself familiar with all the procedures. It is possible that some of his readers really will go into space, so they are perhaps having a preview of their course textbook.
There are vivid descriptions of the trip itself. Once the spacecraft is in orbit, the Earth below is indeed magnificent. "As you are moving round the Earth every 90 minutes, dawn is already drawing near. First a bright red strip marks the edge of the darkened planet... As the Sun rises above the atmosphere, it seems that a wave of molten copper flows over the surface of the clouds. Now your home country comes into view. Quickly you look for points of interest as you try to locate your home town."
But there may be initial problems, and it is noted that tourists may suffer from space-sickness, though it does not usually last for long. Inside the station, the tourist must learn how to move and must adapt to the strange conditions of zero gravity. One question often asked, particularly by young enthusiasts, is: "How do you use the toilet in space?" Van Pelt explains, and he also gives a brief discussion of "space loving", commenting that participants may anticipate some difficulty with rendezvous and docking!
All this sounds plausible enough, but it must always be recognised that space is a dangerous environment and that accidents are bound to happen. We all remember the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, and it may be argued that in some ways van Pelt paints an overoptimistic picture. In particular, not enough is said about the radiation hazard. Once beyond our protecting atmosphere, astronauts are vulnerable even if they are in space for only a brief period - and it is this that may well cause delays in long-term planning. There is also the process of re-adapting to Earth gravity on return, though tourists who have made very brief flights should not expect any trouble.
Only in the last sections of the book is there a hint of a return to science fiction. Space colonies for thousands of people lie far in the future, if they can ever be built, and interstellar travel is even more futuristic. Unless there is some fundamental breakthrough, astronauts cannot hope to move beyond the Solar System.
The one disappointing feature of the book is that although the colour plate section is acceptable, the numerous black-and-white photographs are very poor -they should be replaced for the next edition. But all in all, this is a fascinating and valuable book, and any would-be space tourist will be well advised to study it before blasting off.
Sir Patrick Moore is an astronomer whose next book will be Atlas of the Universe . He was an RAF navigator during the Second World War.
Space Tourism: Adventures in Earth Orbit and Beyond
Author - Michel van Pelt
Publisher - Copernicus
Pages - 217
Price - £19.00
ISBN - 0 387 40213 6.